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Photo by Jack GouldFor the past 10 years, Utah lawyer Jesse Trentadue has been trying to find out what really happened to his brother. On Aug. 21, 1995, prison guards found Kenneth Trentadue hanging from a bed sheet inside his cell at the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City. According to the FBI, Kenneth hung himself. But Trentadue is convinced his brother was tortured to death and that the FBI covered up the crime after mistaking him for a possible participant in the Oklahoma City bombing.
Jesse Trentadue's suspicions are shared by a powerful ally: Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach). Because the Trentadues grew up in Westminster—where their mother still lives—he's assisting the family in their Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking access to all records from the FBI's probe of the bombing. So far, the FBI has only released heavily redacted files, but on Aug. 16, U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball ordered the FBI to turn over uncensored copies of everything it has.
The documents in question relate to the FBI's investigation of Elohim City, a right-wing compound in Oklahoma, and the Midwestern Bank Bandits, a group operating out of the compound that allegedly robbed banks to fund terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
"Mr. Trentadue has long sought these records as he believes that they will reveal information about the circumstances of the death of his brother," Rohrabacher wrote. "I ask that you comply with Judge Kimball's order and not make attempts to block his ruling by delay tactics or other judicial challenges. Further attempts to obstruct this case will only undermine the FBI's credibility in the eyes of the public."
Jesse Trentadue says his interest in Elohim City's possible ties to the bombing began in 2001, when he received a telephone call from someone who said he was passing a message from convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh. The caller said McVeigh believed Kenneth had been tortured to death because he matched the physical description of Richard Lee Guthrie, a member of the compound. In an eerie parallel to Trentadue's fate, Guthrie, who was finally captured in January 1996, was found hanging in his prison cell in Kentucky seven months later.
Rohrabacher failed to respond to interview requests for this story. He also refused to talk for a previous story ("Case Unclosed?" June 24), which detailed how the Trentadue case helped spark his interest in holding congressional hearings into the Oklahoma City bombing. Under withering criticism from fellow Republicans, including Sen. James Inhofe and Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma—both of whom oppose new hearings into the bombing—Rohrabacher has yet to follow through. Accompanied by FBI agents, Rohrabacher did visit convicted bomber Terry Nichols in prison but came away from that interview saying he hadn't heard anything that warranted a new investigation.
Gary Johnson, a special agent with the FBI's Oklahoma City Field Office, denied recent reports that the FBI has reopened its investigation of the bombing. "The investigation has never officially been closed," he said. "It's still considered an open investigation at this time, and that hasn't changed since April 1995."
Neither Inhofe nor Istook responded to interview requests, but Matt Lambert, Istook's communications director, said his boss wasn't wild about what Rohrabacher was up to. "He thinks this incident is in the past," Lambert said. "There's been enough investigation, and he's not interested in exploring this matter any further."
But Gloria Chipman, who lost her husband in the bombing and helped organize Victims of Terrorism Information and Vital Exchange Services (VOTIVES), a group representing victims of the tragedy, said she supports Rohrabacher's efforts. "We are requesting hearings on the Oklahoma City bombing based on the Trentadue case, not on any conspiracy theories," she said. "We're asking our senators to support Rohrabacher to get the unredacted documents. They'll have names in them."
Jannie Coverdale, another VOTIVES member, lost two grandchildren in the bombing. She attended the jury trials of both McVeigh and Nichols, and said she regularly corresponds with Nichols. She said she was suspicious about Kenneth Trentadue's death long before she suspected it had anything to do with the bombing. "He had scars from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet," she said. "How are you going to commit suicide like that?"
But Coverdale said once she found out about the bizarre similarities between Kenneth Trentadue and Richard Lee Guthrie, she became convinced Trentadue's death had something to do with the bombing. "I approve of what [Rohrabacher's] trying to do," she said. "I read everything I could about the bombing and those skinheads and neo-Nazis. Guthrie and those people were supposed to be friends with McVeigh. Guthrie and Trentadue had the same tattoo on the same arm and they looked alike. When I found out that Guthrie died in jail and was supposed to have committed suicide too, that was just too much to be a coincidence."